I realised I had more confidence in the ability of my culture and upbringing to shape what I was, than I had in my own ability to shape my culture. How trapped was I in what my society and upbringing said I should be? Would I ever be able to break through and find real truth independent of this socially constructed reality? These were questions I now consciously began to explore by placing myself into the shoes of six of the impressive people I met in South Africa.
12 - Would I Be Any Different, If...
South Africa 1991
During 1991 I began to realise consciously that I was experiencing an inner journey. The way I wrote in my diaries began to change. I began to write about the places I visited and about how events also had implications for me.
This visit to South Africa led me to reflect on how I might have reacted if I had been born in South Africa — as a white or as a black.
Where You Stand Depends On Where You Sit
At the end of my visit to South Africa I joined the privileged few. I boarded a jumbo jet, silently complaining about another long flight in 'the big bus in the sky'.
What would I leave behind in South Africa? A nation sitting on a powder keg. A country of astounding wealth and privilege, yet unparalleled poverty, oppression and injustice. There was change coming in South Africa, but would it come soon enough to avoid a violent catharsis?
As I prepared to leave, I found myself wondering where I would fit if I had been born South African rather than Australian. If one were born black, options were limited. If one were born white, options were limited in different ways.
You're 16, you're beautiful, and you're white
Would I be like the sixteen-year-old waitress at Mike's Kitchen? She told us she had been born in Ireland and come to South Africa as a small child. We told her we had just spent the day in Soweto.
'Ooh', she said, her pretty eyes widening under her long blond fringe, 'we took a wrong turn into Soweto last year. I was so scared. I just covered my eyes and screamed until we got out of there.'
Then the cliched comment of the unconsciously racist. 'Not that I dislike the blacks, mind you. I'm not a racist or anything. I work with them here every day.'
We obligingly filled out the form entering her in the Waitress of the Year competition. If she won, one of us would go to Mauritius.
'From Australia?' I asked.
'Maybe not', she replied. Such privileges depended on where you live.
If you lived in Soweto you didn't think about holidays in Mauritius. Or anywhere.
Drugs, death and Street Life
Could the luck of birth have found me like Tabo, the young father who sold marijuana for a living? Well, I guessed he sold marijuana. What I actually asked him was 'How do you earn money?'
'I buy and sell', he replied, the common euphemism for pushers of low-grade escape drugs.
'How much do you earn?'
'I buy for about 120 rand and sell for 350. About twice a month.' A good mark-up and enough to keep his wife and two children fed and clothed.
Fifteen years ago he abandoned school. Everyone did. The government was insisting that their education be conducted in Afrikaans instead of their own language. The education was second class anyway. Classes were boycotted, schools and books burned. Only a few went back to school when it became quiet.
Tabo was typical of this third generation of apartheid blacks. They knew no other world except enforced racial and ethnic separation. They had no education. They had few analytical skills and no world view beyond Soweto. They distrusted de Klerk and all the 'settlers'. Worse, they were losing faith in Mandela and other black leaders.
The general view in the West was that de Klerk was a hero, Mandela a saint, and progress towards a multi-racial New South Africa inevitable. The view from Soweto was different, even if the hope was equally optimistic.
'How is life different for you since the changes in South Africa?' I asked a group gathered for cards and beer in a Soweto home, a shebeen. A vivacious young woman with a big smile framed between huge gold earrings stood up to me.
'What changes?' she demanded. 'Nothing's changed here. There is still no employment. The garbage collection doesn't work. People are killed.'
'Do you think war is inevitable?'
'Inevitable? It's already here. We are being killed right now. The hostel people [the Zulus] came to this corner' (she pointed at the street corner 100 metres away) 'and attacked us. We had no arms. So we threw stones.' It began to sound like the Gaza Strip. 'Then the police came. Did they disarm the hostel people? No. They shot at us! My cousin was killed. Right here.' She pointed out into the street. More than sixty people died in one weekend that month.
'But', I said defensively, 'Mr Vlok, the Minister for Law and Order, told me that this is definitely against policy. He said if they find police taking sides, they take action to deal with them. Transfer them. He said this sort of thing is a mistake.' There was a loud communal groan of derision.
'Is it a mistake when you kill someone? Aim the gun and pull the trigger?' she asked, tears of anger rimming her eyes. The question hung in the air. It seemed impossible to answer.
If I were her, would I have been any different?
Silver Tongued Devil
What if I had been born in Adriaan Vlok's shoes? Would I have been like him?
Vlok, the Minister responsible for police and internal security for the previous four years, was charming. Soft-spoken and reasonable, he smiled easily and accepted any question with disarming humility. I thought we must have attended similar schools for How to Handle Tricky Interviews. He avoided the direct answer by generalising.
'Two World Vision workers in Queenstown were detained last week under the police powers to detain without charge. I wonder why the police need such powers in the New South Africa?' I asked.
'Well, I am sorry to hear that. I do not know the particular details, of course.' Well, not of course. We did mention it last week when setting up the interview, and we did fax details to your office a few days ago, but we know you are a busy man. 'The police only have this power to detain people suspected of being involved in terrorism.
Terrorism? Excuse me, we are talking about World Vision field workers.
'Frankly, I hope we do not need this power much longer. For the time being it is necessary. I look forward to the day when everyone will be safe and the police can get on with their real job of catching criminals.'
So say all of us. He had the technique down pat, and I am not Jana Wendt.
While we set up some concluding camera shots, the Minister moved to another part of his office. He had his photo taken with a slim, muscular woman with short blond hair and a nervous smile. 'This lady is a captain in our police force', Vlok informed us as his PR photographer went about his work. 'She has just completed her doctorate and I am receiving a copy.'
'We don't have such attractive police captains in Australia', quipped our cameraman.
'Or as well-educated', I added, attempting to balance the sexism.
There was good-natured laughter. Such nice people. Such nice surroundings. So easy to like. Would I have been any different in their circumstances?
Singing in Soweto
Circumstances at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pimsville, Soweto, were quite different. The road was muddy and pot-holed. We needed a guide for directions and personal security.
On the way to church we ran a police speed trap. They pulled us over. My colleague, Cathy, the only black person in the car, began to explain to the junior officer that she was taking three Australian visitors to church. He was very polite but lacked authority to do anything except issue the ticket.
Steve, our cameraman/director, stepped out of the car. He was wearing a military style raincoat over a white collar and tie. 'I know how to get out of a car like a policeman', he bragged. He stood upright and glared fiercely down the road at the senior man in charge. When the senior policeman saw him, he stiffened and waved us on. 'South African justice', Steve commented cynically. Cathy was saved from embarrassment towards her guests, but I felt we had just re-cemented one loosening brick of apartheid.
The church service began at ten o'clock with two-thirds of the congregation still to come. A choir of all ages assembled in the courtyard. They began to sing in harmonies that invaded every pore and brought thrill and pleasure. It was like being immersed in a warm musical bath. The music massaged a troubled soul and relaxed a mind occupied with too many things. I was there to worship, and suddenly God felt very close.
This service was unlike anything in Australia. Music occurred at every turn of the prayer book page. The preacher stood to preach and launched into song after his fourth sentence. All joined him.
A woman led in prayer. Her prayer was in the local language, but her passion communicated universally. Her voice rose in volume and pitch, and her breathing degenerated to asthmatic grunts. The pain and brokenness of her prayer pierced every heart.
The preacher preached. Man, did he preach! The method was fire and brimstone, exhortatory, loud and energetic. The content was the opposite. Reconciliation, forgiveness for the past wrongs of the oppressors. David's love and forgiveness to his rebel son Absalom was compared with the father's forgiveness of the New Testament Prodigal Son.
Preacher and translator alternated. Sometimes the preacher led in the local language, sometimes in English. The translator never faltered. They maintained the rhythmical dance, lifting us higher and higher to the point where the preacher asked if we can be like Christ who, while nailed to a cross, could still say, 'Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing'.
It was a political message undoubtedly. It was a message of justice and hope for the new South Africa. If I had been this preacher, would this have been my message?
Hero of the Revolution
Not far away was the home of Walter Sisulu. He welcomed us at short notice. Interviews with ANC leaders were hard to get in those days, but Sisulu responded through the approach of a mutual friend. The home was modest, small and typical of Soweto. There was a small Mercedes in the driveway. Since I coveted it, I did not accuse others.
Sisulu was grandfatherly and slow in manner, but his mind and his commitment were strong. After we had talked for almost an hour I asked him, 'Despite everything that has happened to you, how do you remain so positive and peaceful?'
To me the moderate peacefulness of this echelon of black leadership was simply miraculous. Despite the death of many friends, despite decades of imprisonment, despite the apparently unending hopelessness, they kept their dream alive. It was perhaps the finest story of hope this century.
Sisulu's answer was a commercial for the ANC dream of a just and fair, multi-racial South Africa. This dream had sustained him. It still did.
The response was unsatisfactory to me. What inner force, what external force, can maintain such strength? Surely this was beyond ordinary humans. Surely this was the work of God. Sisulu made no such claim.
Would I be like Sisulu if I had been born in his shoes? At last here was one question I could answer with accurate candour. No. I was simply not that strong and good a man. I was too sinful. I coveted his motor car. I was pleased when an unjust system permitted me to run speed traps with impunity. I was glad I didn't have to live here and wrestle with the day to day realities of injustice and privilege. I was leaving tonight. I would be glad to escape.